Vacancies at transport agencies sow angst

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Vacancies atop several regulatory agencies within the Obama administration are prompting concerns about transportation safety after a series of recent accidents across the nation. 

Leadership positions at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration  (FMCSA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA), as well as the high-profile Transportation Security Administration (TSA), are currently being filled with interim chiefs. 

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A recent spate of accidents involving commuter, subway and oil trains have raised awareness about the number of vacancies atop the federal government’s transportation watchdogs. 

The vacant transportation positions all require confirmation from the Senate, which is in control of Republicans now for the first time since 2006.  

At the same time, many of the interim officials appointments came with expiration dates.

“There are five, I think, acting administrators…out of the nine modal administrations, including one at FMCSA [who] will no longer be able to serve in that capacity by the end of the month,” Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneAviation panel recommends Trump roll back safety rules Overnight Regulation: House moves to block methane rule | Senators wrestle with allowing driverless trucks | EPA delays toxic waste rule Overnight Tech: Senate looks at self-driving trucks | Facebook to keep ads off fake news | House panel calls Equifax CEO to testify MORE (R-S.D.) said during a hearing earlier this month about federal transportation funding. 

Thune said the Obama administration has been slow to send the Senate nominees for the critical transportation oversight posts. 

“We have only gotten one nomination…so we can't even begin the confirmation process for the rest of these important safety agencies,” he said to Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxWeek ahead in tech: Lawmakers turn focus to self-driving cars Six contenders to be Uber's new CEO Obama’s Transportation chief given Super Bowl tickets by Hollywood studio exec MORE at the March 3 hearing.

“And I just want to convey to you the importance of getting those up here,” Thune continued. “It seems like it's awfully important and I think that the sooner we can get those leadership posts filled the better off we're going to be.” 

Foxx maintained that there is “an awful lot of work underway” to fill the positions.

The Senate approved the Obama administration's nominee for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration late last year, but that was before Republicans took control of the chamber.  A pair of appointments to the National Transportation Safety Board were cleared by the GOP-led chamber on Thursday.

“But also we have good leaders in place, even if they are acting," Foxx said. "And the expectation is that there's no drop-off in our ability to focus."

The interim transportation chiefs have been put to the test this year with accidents involving Amtrak, commuter railways in New York and Chicago and the Washington, D.C. Metrorail subway system. Oil trains have been in the spotlight as well as lawmakers push for regulatory changes to prevent explosive crashes like recent accidents in North Dakota and Canada. 

Transportation department officials declined to comment about the regulatory vacancies on Friday. 

Joshua Schank, president of the non-partisan Eno Center for Transportation, told The Hill that it is unlikely the recent spike in accidents is related to the regulatory vacancies at the Transportation Department. 

But Schank said “the fact that there’s a number of positions unfilled is problematic.”

“It makes it harder for people to do their jobs,” he said. 

Schank said the Obama administration could be facing difficulties finding candidates for the positions so late in the president’s final term. He said the Obama administration might let many of interim transportation chiefs stay in place for the remainder of the president’s tenure in office. 

“At some point, that’s the only option,” he said. “We’re getting to the point where sometimes you let them finish out the rest of the term as if they are not interim and don’t both getting them confirmed” 

Schank said the U.S. transportation system is safe for passengers, despite both the regulatory vacancies and the recent string of accidents. 

“The system is overwhelmingly safe, so it’s difficult to draw correlations between vacancies at the U.S. DOT and accidents that have happened because there are so few data points,” he said. 

Schank said critics might say the higher number of transportation-related vacancies “raises questions about whether there are too many regulatory agencies within the U.S. DOT,” however

Lawmakers on the Senate transportation panel have also criticized the Obama administration for delays in nominating a TSA chief, although the airport security agency falls under the Department of Homeland Security. 

Acting Administrator Melvin Carraway assumed his position in January following the retirement of Administrator John Pistole.

“Administrator Pistole announced his plans to step down on October 16, 2014,” the committee said in a notice announcing the hearing. “A recent bipartisan letter from Senate Commerce Committee leaders urged President Obama to prioritize the formal nomination of a permanent TSA Administrator in this time of evolving terror threats.”

Sens. Thune, Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDem asks airlines to cap airfares ahead of Hurricane Maria Trump encourages Rick Scott to run for Senate Overnight Regulation: House moves to block methane rule | Senators wrestle with allowing driverless trucks | EPA delays toxic waste rule MORE (D-Fla.), Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteStale, misguided, divisive: minimum wage can't win elections Trump voter fraud commission sets first meeting outside DC RNC chair warns: Republicans who refused to back Trump offer 'cautionary tale' MORE (R-N.H.), Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenate energy bill is misguided gift to Trump’s dirty fossil fuel agenda Help states solve their housing problems with the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act Time to pass the U.S. OUTDOOR Act to support American jobs and consumers MORE (D-Wash.), and Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerSenate approves Trump's debt deal with Democrats Trump administration turns to rural communities for input on infrastructure bill Senators eye ticket fee to overhaul airports MORE (R-Neb.) sent the Obama administration a letter in January calling for a full-time TSA nominee.  

Carraway was meanwhile thrust into the spotlight last month when a standoff over the Department of Homeland Security's funding threatened TSA workers' paychecks. 

"If DHS does not receive funding, these employees would not receive biweekly paychecks for their work during the shutdown until Congress acts,” Carraway said during the Homeland Security funding debate. “They deserve better than the proposition of coming to work every day on an IOU." 

The appeal was successful, despite Carraway's interim status.